Practice, contemplation, and insights

“Hot Enough for You?”

asked Mrs. G, a neighbor who is nearer 90 than 70. “Not too bad yet,” I replied. What we really meant was “Mornin'” and “Good morning to you too.” It was not the time to say that I find the heat, when I listen to it, helps me get perfectly still, and when I follow the directive to stillness I’m easy in the heat.

Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.


Eating Local, Annamaya Kosha, and “Human Landscape Dance”

When my friend Mac asked if I would let my readers know that his dance group Human Landscape Dance will be performing at Dance Place on Saturday and Sunday, July 9th and 10th, I agreed without hesitation.  As I was contemplating what to write, I found myself thinking about the koshas–the energetic sheaths of the body.  The yogis claim that the individual has five koshas.  The outermost, the annamaya kosha, is the “food body.”  “Food” in this context encompasses everything that comes into our body through all of our senses–touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell.  I thought about what it might mean to “eat local” if eating meant everything that we encounter with our senses.

I am not a locavore (I too thoroughly enjoy avocado, coconut and, in winter, citrus), but I do try to emphasize local food as the mainstay of my diet.  I do it mostly for energetic reasons.  I want fresh food to have been picked as recently as possible and not to have grown weary from travel.  I want as few hands as possible to have touched the food I buy, and those hands to be those of a person who is happy with farming and is paid a living wage by the sale of the produce.  When your food growers, transporters, and preparers live nearby you are getting to know your neighbors and community, and not just getting food from a faceless corporate entity.  Over the years, you get to know each other a bit and learn what friends you have in common.  More threads are woven into the fabric of your community.

Just as knowing the person who grows and sells you food means you can be more certain that it was raised and offered for sale with nourishment intended at every stage, so too having the art and entertainment we bring into our senses be created within our community creates a network of connection and support that we do not get when we only consume commercially prepared entertainment (though I cheerfully buy music from my favorite “stars,” go to the movies, and enjoy trips to Lincoln Center,and London’s West End, etc., just as I get avocados and citrus along with the greens from my garden and the fruits from the local farmers’ market).

I feel blessed to be able to connect with Mac as a neighbor (Mac, his wife Jennifer Mueller, who is a student of mine and fellow yoga teacher on the Hill, and their delightful daughter live several blocks from me) and others who are performing next Saturday as fellow dancers at the Sunday Contact Improv Jam.  My dancing and personal explorations are raised up by the company of the wonderful dancers and friends who share that space, including those who will be performing next weekend.

Why wouldn’t I want to both support my friends and learn more about them by going to Dance Place to receive the dance offering they are so lovingly preparing for all of us?  Such is the nature of feeding mindfully the annamaya kosha to help lead us to the opening and nurturing of our innermost spirit, finding and creating more bliss in ourselves and in the very essence of our community.

FYI.  I’m looking for company to carpool or walk together to and from the Brookland Metro (for safety on the way home).  Perhaps Sunday CI Jam, dinner on the Hill, and the Sunday night show?

Photo courtesy of Human Landscape Dance.


Loops and Spirals and the Still Point at the Center (NYC, Vt, Long Island, DC)

My trip to the Anusara Grand Gathering was some loop of a trip, spiraling and pulsing between urban and rural, quiet time and enthusiastic gathering, old places and new scenery.  Last Saturday, I took a morning train to Manhattan, where I went to the Rubin Museum–one of my favorite spaces in the City, walked to see the Ai Weiwei sculptures in front of the Plaza, and ate good food.  On Sunday morning, I got back on the train, this time heading north to Saratoga Springs.  Just north of Croton-on-Hudson, I saw soaring over the river a raptor with an enormous wing span, white head, and brown body and wings — most likely a bald eagle.

My friend Suzanne picked me up at the Amtrak Station in Saratoga Springs.  We went back to her house for lunch.  Before driving to Stratton Mountain for the Anusara Grand Gathering, she showed me her studio, which is a wonderful space; I look forward to visiting again.  And then we were in Vermont with John Friend, the scholars, the certified teachers leading the break out sessions and assisting, the musicians, the outdoor art, and a few hundred committed yogis.  (See previous four posts for my thoughts o the Grand Gathering).

On Wednesday afternoon, I rode back to New York with a fellow yogi and teacher I have long admired.  I decided on pure impulse, since we were getting to the City a couple of hours early, to visit my parents.  We were able to spend the evening and morning talking, and then my mother and I went to Old Westbury Gardens (check out the new Facebook profile picture my mother took in the rose garden on my personal page and please “like” my public page, if you haven’t already).

I caught the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station and then Amtrak back to DC.  The next morning (Friday), I worked a full day, returning to quite a slew of emails.  In the evening I had a massage and went into the garden to reground myself.  Went up to Takoma on Saturday to teach, circling immediately back into the rhythm of home.

The photo montage below gives an idea of the wide variety and quantity of input into mind and senses.  There was actually much quiet time in this whirlwind.  I spent all the time on the train listening to teleseminars, studying, writing in my journal, watching the scenery, contemplating, and napping.  More important than the quiet space of the train rides, every day of the trip, I sat, as I do each day wherever I am, for meditation morning and evening.  While on the road, my meditation gave me a space that was home; when I came home, it helped get me settled and able to carry forward the openings and shifts from going on vacation into my at home routine.

A steady practice gives us a still point, a space that stays steady and nourishing.  The more consistent we are, the easier it is to access this space (hridaya), no matter how much life seems to whirl and spiral around us.



Photos are in order of travel:  Manhattan, Upstate New York, Vermont, Anusara Grand Gathering, Old Westbury Gardens, points on route, and back home with offerings from the garden on my kitchen counter (welcome home).


“If there were lights to turn on…” (and Purna) (at the Anusara Grand Gathering)

The first two days, including the Solstice, of the Anusara Grand Gathering were bright and blue and sunny and pleasantly cool in the morning and warm in the afternoon–“perfect” New England summer days.  The third morning dawned cloudy.  By the time the morning session was underway, a pleasant drizzle had turned into a deluge.  Rain started coming in from the sides where the tent was open, and then the roof started leaking.  The clouds were sufficiently dense that the light was no more than at dawn or dusk.  It was getting pretty dark and wet in the tent.  At one point, after having told stories about rain being regarded as blessings in Hindu rituals and exhorting us in surya namaskar to jump forward and splash in a puddle like a kid, John said, “I would turn the lights on, but there aren’t any lights to turn on.  So this is perfect!”

One of the conundrums in explaining the philosophical principle of purna, which means “perfect” or “fullness” is reconciling it with the evident fact that our divine perfection or fullness aside, we are still working to shift and realign our minds and bodies through the practices.  The divine consciousness, which is everything, say the yogis, is utterly perfect as it is and completely full (or fully empty and thus all potential, depending on how you look at it).  We are told that we (and all of being) are the divine consciousness manifest and then given a slew of techniques and instruction to help us change ourselves.

If we are completely perfect and full, what is the point of learning all the technique and seeking to expand and shift our bodies and minds?  The yoga teachings say that we forget that we are this fullness and perfection, and it is our forgetting that leads to suffering (which is different than pain, but discussing that distinction will have to wait for another blog entry).  The practices are not to perfect or improve us, but rather to shift our alignment (mind and body) so that we remember the perfection of ourselves as spirit.  When we remember, we are better able to recognize the perfection in ourselves, other people, beings, things, or events, even what we find challenging or difficult.  From this space of recognition, in my experience, we naturally become happier and more generous of spirit.

I think that moment at the Anusara Grand Gathering is a perfect (word choice intentional) illustration of the apparent dichotomy of seeking change and appreciation of the perfection of every moment.  If there had been lights to turn on, John would have turned on the lights so that we could have observed the alignment better during the demonstrations and he and the assistants could have seen the students more easily.  The universe did not have it in store for us to have a light-filled dry day; we were getting a wet and dark one whether we liked it or not.  Having no lights to turn on, John reminded us in a light-hearted way that the teachings and practices would invite us to fully embrace and enjoy the weather we got and practice space we had (while staff were busily making alternative arrangements for classes later in the day), getting the most out of it.  I thought it was pretty fun to practice in the cool rain, though it’s easy for me to say since I and my things stayed dry, and the rain was a welcome respite from the worsening drought in the DC area.



Found Exhortation

One of the most profound and essential teachings of the great yogis is to “watch the gap.” We are given the practice of watching the gap, the space, the pause, the turning point between the in breath and the out breath, the out breath and the in breath. In the gap, we are able to witness perfect fullness (purna) and perfect emptiness (sunyata). In minding the gap, we can experience perfect stillness and serenity. It is an extraordinary practice in its simplicity and in its gift of peace and repose.

Whether you have never heard of this practice, learned it at some point but have mostly forgotten about it, or just did it with your own practice, I invite you to take a few minutes on reading this: make your seat steady and as comfortable as possible, close your eyes, invite an intention of finding a still spaciousness in your heart. Draw your attention to the breath and start to notice the space (maybe almost instantaneous and unobservable, maybe a real pause) between the in and out breaths.

If you are moved, comment on your experience to share with each other. There is no one right reaction nor a wrong one. If it was challenging to sit still and focus, just be gentle and soften to how enjoyable it can be to do nothing other than watch the breath, like the sweet and easy restfulness of watching the movement of waves at the beach.

Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.


“Hip Openers for Peace”

Desiree Rumbaugh, in the afternoon break-out session on hip openers yesterday, referenced the earlier teachings at the gathering on love, and said with a giggle that her class was “hip openers for peace.”

She shared a story of a teacher having his students create pictures representing peace. He picked two images that best depicted peace. The first was a serene picture of a mirror lake in the mountains (not unlike the tantric yoga principle of using our practice to find in ourselves the mirror of divine spirit). The second was of a barren and craggy landscape with a stormy sky. In a corner of the painting, though, was a nest with a small bird singing. Amidst challenge and chaos, one being living peacefully and joyously. This is why we do yoga, suggested Desiree, to find our own place of peace amidst whatever chaos is life. Noting how challenging hip openers can be for body and mind, especially if our bodies feel tight, she said that the practice can be like the second picture. We want to learn how to feel calm and centered even when we are deeply challenging ourselves on the mat, so we can tap into that place when life gets harder than we think we can bear.

The technology she offered for finding peace in hip openers was not tricks for stretching, but rather to strengthen the core muscles so that the outer hips and the hamstrings do not need to clench to protect themselves. When the core is powerful (as John Friend would say, “adamantine”) then the outside can soften and be open to what comes. This principle, in my experience and as given by my teachers, holds equally true for facing life and the most challenging of yoga poses.

Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.


It’s Easy When the Weather is Beautiful (and Ananda)

The light woke me early on this summer solstice. The sky is bright blue, the air clear and pleasantly temperate, the mountains lushly green, and friends surround me. The practice yesterday was lustrous, and the next two days promise to be equally delightful.

The delight from being surrounded by beauty and good friends can give us a taste of the possibilities of experiencing true bliss. As the surface enjoyment of being on vacation (albeit an extraordinarily good one), though, it has a shadow side, just as the picture below of a smiling ganesha at the base of a tree in the middle of a heart is flanked by a fire hydrant and a pile of trash bags.

It is really easy to imagine ananda — divine bliss, under these circumstances. It is important for all of us to find moments within our means when it is easy to experience the spark of spontaneous happiness. When it is challenging to find it, when grief or hardship confront us, it is ever more important to be able to tap into a space of bliss so that we can bring the most light to our challenges. Having the sweet times helps us find it in the bitter.

Ananda, John reminded us at the afternoon philosophy lecture yesterday, is the joy that has no opposite. It is a deep contentment with what is–hearts and trees and fire hydrants and trash bags and all–that fully accepts the play of opposites.

Those of us who do not know and live ananda spontaneously and naturally all of the time have the yoga. We challenge ourselves on the mat, knowing the exhilaration of heart opening and the challenge of stiffness; we sit for meditation on good days and bad, finding sometimes the pulsing, vibration of the fullness of consciousness and other times our to do list; we practice pranayama to open our energy channels; we chant to remind ourselves of why we practice: to open our hearts and discover the best in ourselves and in all beings.

Happy solstice to all and hope see you soon for the yoga.

Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.


Lady Macbeth (and Bhavana)

The young woman sitting next to me on the train north from New York, who is impossibly tall and has lovely, strong features (i.e., is perfectly cast), is memorizing Lady Macbeth’s lines.

I had on my own lap print-outs of mantras that Paul Muller-Ortega has invited us to memorize as part of our continuing studies.

To enter the character of Lady Macbeth, one of the first steps is to memorize the lines, to know completely what she says and not just to hear it and appreciate it. Memorizing the lines is an essential part of the route to becoming Lady Macbeth.

Paul Muller-Ortega has suggested that the reason to memorize various mantras is not to acquire them, not to be able to demonstrate a superficial knowledge or skill, but to aid in the profound practice of
bhavana–deep contemplation at the heart level. It is not the fact of memorization, but the activity of memorizing. It is no accident that we call memorizing, “knowing by heart.” We seek to learn by heart to invite ourselves into the space of concentration that requires. It is a slow and difficult process for me. I persist, though, because of the deepening and expanding understanding it facilitates.

I note for those yogis (and other readers) who might find the idea of learning mantras alien or uncomfortable or apparently at odds with your own religious beliefs or practices, that studying the mantras does not require or make one a Hindu. I think of it as an invitation to understand and embody the highest archetypes and principles they invoke and represent and compatible with my other observances.

Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.


The “Highest First” and Knowing What Is a Weed

Webster’s On-Line Dictionary defines a “weed” as”any plant growing in cultivated ground to the injury of the crop or desired vegetation, or to the disfigurement of the place; an unsightly, useless, or injurious plant.”  At first blush, this might seem like an easy concept, but if we start breaking down the definition, we can see how much our education, assumptions, and prejudices come into play in deciding what is a weed and what is not.  We need to recognize individual plants (when they first come out of the earth and when they are in full leaf or flower) and what they offer.  We need to know how to foster growth of what we choose to plant, including knowing what will thrive in our location and bring more health and beauty to ourselves and the planet, and we need to have a sense of aesthetics that will cultivate not only our connection to spirit, but optimize the shining through of spirit in all that surrounds us.

Several years ago, I bought a sprig of epazote in a two inch grower’s pot.  It went to seed and came back all over my little garden.  It grows wild beside highways where it is a native plant.  I really like the taste, and it is hard to find here, so I give seedlings away to friends who want it for their own gardens (locals just ask, and I’ll give you some).  It is one plant I know I do not have to replace; it will come back every year if I let it go to seed.  If I had not controlled it by taking it out of prime planting spaces and either using it right away or replanting it someplace nothing else will grow, though, it would be crowding out other plants in a way that is less than optimal.  It is thus both a desired plant and a potentially invasive weed depending on how it fits in with the whole.

I have seen neighbors using Roundup to kill purslane and dandelions that have grown up between the bricks on the sidewalk in front of their houses.  Although I think both purslane and dandelions are pretty plants and perfect for spots where nothing else will grow, I can appreciate wanting the front of the house to look tidy.  Why not pick the free edible plants instead of spraying toxic chemicals?  I let edible wild plants come up between the crevices and then either relocate them or treat weeding as harvesting, getting incredible flavor and nutrition from something that most are taught to try and eradicate.

There are other plants that are sufficiently invasive or poisonous, though, that I do my best to eliminate them from my space (though I do not use pesticides).  The other day, I was walking down East Capitol Street after teaching the William Penn House class and saw some English Ivy climbing up a beautiful tree in one of the sidewalk tree boxes.  I stopped to pull it all off because English Ivy left unchecked will kill a tree.  While engaged in this activity an older couple who lived in the house next to the tree walked up to me and my fellow yogi who was helping me with the ivy removal.  The woman thanked me, saying that she had been meaning to pull the ivy.  Ivy is an example of a plant people think is pretty and appropriate to plant, but it does not belong in our climate and is incredibly destructive.  By my lights, it is a weed, even though I can buy it in most nurseries in the area.  I am blessed not to have poison ivy where I live, but it should be removed.  It is too hard to live with it.

What does determining whether a plant is truly a weed, whether it causes injury or interferes with what is desired or is unsightly, useless or injurious have to do with the “first principle” in Anusara yoga of “opening to grace?”  The first principle invites us to be ready in the first instance to recognize the auspiciousness of both what we seek out and what we encounter.  In teaching meditation and related practices of Blue Throat Yoga, Paul Muller-Ortega speaks of this as “the highest first.”  As we study and practice (jnana/vijnana), we approach the same and new things with ever more refined technique, knowledge and understanding.  The progressive refinement from our efforts helps us then to open up to a deeper perception of the best of our nature.  We keep repeating the cycle of studying and practicing, always remembering the first principle, and we, despite and because of ourselves, shift our relationship with the world around and inside us.  To be open is a softness, a spaciousness, a willingness to see that is without effort.  We temper what gets in the way of effortless opening with the fire to study and to practice with the intention learn how to be more effortless in understanding how things are part of the whole.

How do we apply first principle in knowing what to weed from our garden (or, for that matter, how to address in ourselves a physical, mental or emotional characteristic or pattern of behavior that may or may not serve us or both–our individual “weeds”)?

Is the “desired” vegetation a desire that would help align the gardener and the garden with nature or is it something that was taught that comes from an unsustainable aesthetic and social paradigm (for example, a perfectly green lawn with no plants other than grass)?  If the crop is one that truly nourishes (so worth preserving from injury or interference), does it just mean that the “weed” needs to be relocated so that both the crop and the “weed” can flourish simultaneously?  In other words, is the “weed” beneficial in its own way, but just needs to be shifted so that its inherent good can truly be appreciated and honored?

Is a determination of injuriousness, uselessness, or unsightliness based on ignorance or true discriminative wisdom?  We cannnot know unless we both sweetly open to recognize the potential for discovering the good in what seems most harmful (perhaps one day scientists will find an extraordinary benefit from poison ivy, just as the deadly poisonous plant digitalis is also a powerful heart medicine) and continue to study and practice with an intention to open ever more deeply.


From left to right: volunteer epazote, lemon balm, purslane and dill.  Dinner:  black beans flavored with epazote; greens, including purslane.  Lemon balm (aka melissa) makes a delicious and quieting evening tea.